The Favourite (2018)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, James Smith
Nominations: Picture, Director – Yorgos Lanthimos, Actress – Olivia Colman, Supporting Actress – Emma Stone, Supporting Actress – Rachel Weisz, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design
Win: Actress – Olivia Colman

It can be tricky when making a costume period film stand out from the genre’s long history, especially if the story is inspired by actual historic events.  How do filmmakers adhere to what is known and how do they find ways to not just be another recreation of history?  One way to accomplish this is to enlist an abstract, surrealist Greek director whose filmography is chock full of unconventional approaches to story, plot, character, and setting.  Throw in a cinematographer (Robbie Ryan) unafraid to take risks with lighting, movement, and composition, and you get an exciting, visually original film like The Favourite.

Much of the film is shot with wide-angle and fisheye lenses that capture a larger field of view.  The film’s wide shots include all parts the room the scene occurs in: we see the ceiling, floor, and three walls (sometimes four if the camera is positioned in/near a corner).  The characters tend to be centered in the frame, which makes them appear smaller in contrast to everything else in the shot, especially when further away from the camera.  That may seem like an obvious statement, but with wide lenses a minor change in distance from the camera is greatly amplified.  For example, at about 10 minutes in, Abigail walks from one end of the kitchen to the other, probably about 20 feet.  At the beginning of the shot, she’s small; as she moves across the room, she stands almost the entire height of the frame before shrinking into the distance.  While this might seem innocuous, shots like this emphasize Abigail’s narrative: she begins with nothing, becomes the queen’s main confidant, then is relegated to being the queen’s lackey.

Aside from the unusual visual aesthetic, The Favourite distinguishes itself from its kin with the remarkable performances from the three leads.  The characters have a fantastic amount of life that gives the story more depth than we might expect from a period piece.  Because of the obscurity of the history the film covers (at least for many in the United States), it’s more pertinent for the characters to be as interesting and engaging as possible—as opposed to a character like, for instance, Abraham Lincoln.  The power-dance among the trio is always surprising: each gives us reasons to love them, to admire them, to pity them, to despise them, and, most important, to understand them.  These are not just characters in a film: they’re fully realized women with goals, desires, fears, strengths, and weaknesses.

There’s a freshness to the film because of the characters.  It’s a rare film that not only focuses on female characters but has such complex female characters whose main focus isn’t about their relationships with men.  In fact, all but two or three scenes feature one of the three leads (one is about, of all things, a prized racing duck…) and most of the scenes are about the degrees of power the three have and how they can leverage that power into more power.  It’s a welcome change of pace that highlights how screenwriters and filmmakers are only inhibited by their own perspectives when developing female characters who can be just as—and more—compelling than their male counterparts.